Jonathan Kay’s book Among the Truthers is a thought provoking read, but ultimately unsatisfying. Subtitled “A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground,” the book describes and explains various historical examples of conspiracies, provides a history of some conspiracy movements and sets out lessons Kay has drawn from immersing himself in Truth Movement (9/11 conspiracy) lectures, conventions and meetings at which he has had the time to get to know many leading conspiracy theorists.
At the outset, Kay cites examples of real or problematic historical events that may have actually been conspiracies such as Iran-Contra, the “unsatisfying Warren Commission Report on JFK,” the secret bombing of Cambodia, U.S. military cover up of Mai Lai massacres and other examples of real conspiracies. Yet he later calls conspiracy theories a “leading cause and a symptom of intellectual and current crisis.” He is quick, for example, to dismiss any suggestion that the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 off the coast of Long Island could be part of a conspiracy without providing any convincing details.
Kay suggests that sometimes “we don’t know” is the answer to difficult questions that conspiracy theorists raise. While that may be true, conspiracy theories can sometimes be deflated with proper proof. For example, President Obama has now successfully defeated the “birthers” by producing full and proper birth records. Historians have demonstrated, with overwhelming historical proof, the factual basis and record of the Holocaust. Kay himself provides a sound explanation of the hoax of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and how it was debunked historically.
Much of the book focuses on the movement of Truthers – those who would argue that 9/11 was a conspiracy by the U.S. government. Kay cites frightening statistics to illustrate the success that Truthers have had in convincing a large percentage of the American population that the U.S. federal government participated in the collapse of the twin towers. He profiles a number of the Truther movement’s leading figures, taking pains to point out that these people are not all easily dismissed as cranks. Many are mathematicians, engineers and others with high level academic achievements. However, Kay points out that his book is not a rebuttal of the various conspiracy theories in detail. Instead he provides a range of references and sources for that type of material.
In reviewing some of the history of conspiracy movements, Kay is convincing in explaining the role of anti-Semitism and more the recently, left wing anti-Zionism in the historical development of these movements. Some of the rest of the historical description is lacking. For example, the lack of a decent response to the JFK material leaves the issue hanging. Although Kay shows a link between JFK conspiracies and 9/11 Truther conspiracies, the factual differences are enormous. With respect to 9/11, there are cell phone calls from victims, airport video surveillance, video footage from many angles, names, faces and stories of each of the terrorists and much other information. This can really only be compared to one home video showing Kennedy’s assassination (the Zapruder film).
The chapter discussing the “birth certificate conspiracy” over Obama is illuminating, particularly demonstrating the link between the Tea Party, Christian fundamentalists (particularly those who rely, literally, on the book of Revelations) and the demonization of Obama. Although Kay acknowledges the “kernel of truth” to some of the allegations about Obama, relating to Obama’s background and upbringing, which might even affect Obama’s decision making on Middle East issues, Kay is easily dismissive of any suggestion that this would make Obama part of some kind of fifth column or an illegitimate president.
The heart of Kay’s discussion is the lessons that one can take from 9/11. The widespread availability, particularly on the internet, of unreliable information has undoubtedly played a major role in the spread of conspiracy theories. Here, Kay laments the downfall of traditional media and the commensurate loss of accuracy in information. But Kay forgets that traditional media have also, historically, been complicit in spreading misinformation. For example, the demonstrably false stories of a massacre in Jenin by the Israeli Defence Forces were spread by the “traditional” media outlets.
Kay refers to the phenomenon as the “democratization of paranoia.” He underlines the fact that internet users can load up web sites with unprovable and false information and rise to the top of Google searches. Of course, accompanying video, that is easily edited and even created, can also be spread quickly and easily.
Ultimately, Kay goes overboard in tying in issues of political correctness and academic “reconstruction” theories to conspiracists. Though he discusses certain issues of Canadian and American discourse, such as aboriginal land claims issues and the reliability of aboriginal “oral history” and also touches on controversial affirmative action issues, it is quite a leap to propose that Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld are targets as alleged conspirators because of the attack by the political correctness movement on middle aged white men. This suggestion does not accord with other parts of Kay’s book in which he notes that most of the Truthers are, in fact, middle aged white males. The idea that an exaggerated version of political correctness should be tied in to the conspiracy theorists is a claim that allows Kay to ignore the very real and positive changes that society has made by changing some of the offensive and discriminatory language that was used in the past.
Kay is on much stronger ground in tracing the tie in between anti-Semitism and conspiracy movements. Here, he highlights the fact that conspiracists on the right and on the left have both been plagued by variants of anti-Semitism. He segues into a discussion of the use by the left of anti-Israel anti-Semitism, which is disguised as fair comment on Israel’s foreign policy. The discussion explains why this is, often, simply disguised anti-Semitism and why that has led or contributed to a shift in Jewish voting patterns and party support in the U.S. and Canada. The shared anti-Semitism is sometimes something that the far right and the far left can share together even while their conspiracy conferences are being held blocks away from each other.
Kay’s recipe for confronting conspiracy movements is in education, particularly in educating people in the ability to filter information and in providing people with the history of conspiracy movements. But Kay lumps in atheist authors such as Hitchens and Dawkins as being complicit in creating an atmosphere that allows for conspiracy theories. “Society requires some creed or overriding national project…” and in the absence of faith, people will be led to these types of theories. But Kay does not circle back to the impact of the many religious Tea Party fundamentalists at the heart of many conspiracy theories that he describes. Surely they have to be at least as dangerous as the atheists, given Kay's historical discussion.
While Kay ultimately calls for the need for society to balance scepticism with faith and cites the need to rehabilitate public institutions, Kay fails to adequately explain why the public institutions warrant the rehabilitation.